Millions of Cambodians died during the Khmer Rogue reign in the 1970s in what is now known as the Cambodian Genocide. Led by Pol Pot, this regime imprisoned and executed its own citizens, often in rural areas known as the Killing Fields. Today, several of these locations have been set up as historical sites with monuments and educational markers. To better understand the rich culture and modern beauty of the region, we recommend you plan to visit the Killing Fields of Cambodia during your next trip to Phnom Penh.
Before going any further, I want to offer a warning to readers that the following article discusses difficult events that includes violence against adults and children.
Some of the photos and content I will be sharing are unsettling (but not graphic). It’s not a pleasant topic but remembering the past and learning from it is essential. Whether or not you are planning a trip to Cambodia, I urge you to consider learning about this utterly tragic and shockingly recent period of world history.
Why did the killing fields of Cambodia happen?
The Cambodian Genocide was a horrific event that happened only 40 years ago (from 1975-1979) and killed nearly 2 million innocent Cambodians (nearly 1/4th of the population).
In 1975, a new leader named Pol Pot came into power in Cambodia as the head of the Khmer Rouge political party.
At first, the people were happy because he promised peace and to return Cambodia to its previous, more traditional way of life.
Pol Pot thought the modern cities in Cambodia were corrupt. He completely evacuated the modern cities of Cambodia, including the capital of Phnom Penh. He forced the people living there out of their homes and into the countryside to work in forced labor camps.
Pol Pot executed all of the educated people in Cambodia (doctors, teachers, lawyers, monks, people who wore glasses, people who could read, or anyone who might disagree with him) so they wouldn’t stir up dissension or start a revolution.
Where are the killing fields in Cambodia?
There are over 23,000 sites in Cambodia where mass executions took place. About 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh is the largest mass execution site. After escaping, one of the suvivors named this place “The Killing Field.”
It is estimated that 17,000 men, women, and children were killed here in just the few short years of the Khmer reign.
What happened at the killing fields?
Above, the Khmer Rouge hung a loudspeaker from this tree to cover up the screams of the victims as they executed them.
The craters you see above are mass graves that have been excavated.
There are 129 mass graves at the Killing Field, but 43 of them have been left untouched. During the rainy season the field is flooded with water. This causes the clothing from the victims that are still buried to float to the surface. If you look closely around the fields you can see it in many places.
Unfortunately it is very common for bones to float to the surface as well.
How did the Khmer Rouge kill their victims?
From the bodies that have been exhumed, you can see evidence of how they were killed. This victim had his arms wired together.
The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to waste bullets, so they came up with other ways to perform the executions. The sharp branches from this tree were used to slice the victims throats.
Again, I want to offer a content warning, the following part includes violence against children.
This next part is very hard to type. It is especially horrific.
In order to save bullets, the Khmer Rouge beat the children against this tree.
S-21 Prison (Toul Sleng Museum)
Many of the victims of the Cambodian Genocide were first held at the S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh.
This building was once a secondary school, but the the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and torture facility.
Above, you can see the large classrooms were made into rows of cells, smaller than the size of a bathroom stall.
Approximately 12,273 people were detained here. There were only 7 known survivors.
Three of the former prisoners are still alive today, and they go back to the prison every day to share their stories with visitors. It is very common for the school children of Cambodia to visit on a field trip.
You can help support the survivors by buying their autobiography/memoir from their time in the prison and read their fascinating stories. We bought all three books.
Books from the Survivors
Many of you have asked where you can purchase the books from the survivors of the S-21 Prison. Here are the titles with links to Amazon, however it looks like these are just people selling their old copies. Anyway, I wanted to give you the names just in case.
- Bou Meng: A Survivor From Khmer Rouge Prison S-21
- Norng Chan Phal – The Mystery of the Boy at S-21
- Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man in the Khmer Rouge Genocide
Should you visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia?
Although such horrific events happened at the Killing Fields, today you can see these vibrant pink flowers blooming at the fields.
These are not the happiest spots to tour. But they are incredibly important sites to be aware of and learn from during your visit Phnom Penh.
It’s a difficult subject, but remembering the past and learning from it is essential. This horrific event took place only 40 years ago, and still greatly touches the lives of Cambodians today.
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading. It was extremely difficult to share, but I feel very strongly that it’s important we don’t forget.
Do you need a guide at the Killing Fields in Cambodia?
We booked a 3-week tour in South East Asia with Indochina Voyages. This included a private guide and driver in each city we visited. The guides were local guides who were born and raised in that city so they were able to answer all of our questions about the history of the city.
Our guide lived in Phnom Penh in the 1970s when Pol Pot evacuated the city. He was only 3 years old. They had to march out of the city on foot. His parents carried him and his brother when they got tired of walking. He spent 3 years, 8 months, and 20 days in captivity under the Khmer Rouge Regime.
Visiting the site with a guide who had personally been through these atrocities and hearing his first-hand experiences made our visit so much more profound. I highly recommend booking a tour with a personal guide who can tell you their experiences and answer any questions you may have.
There are also audio guides available that are narrated by survivors of the Killing Fields.
Questions about the Killing Fields?
If you have any questions about visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia, please don’t hesitate to ask. Please leave me a comment below and I’ll do my best to help in any way I can.